When Racism is a University Tradition: An Open Letter to the UIUC Community

This is a conversation I really didn’t want to be having. I didn’t think I would have to still be having this conversation. But, we must. Some friends and I (primarily driven by Suey Park) collaboratively worked on this open letter to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign community. If you’re an alum and want in on the signature: tweet, FB, email, or comment. I’ll update periodically. I am happy to add signatures, but will not do so without an explicit statement directed to me stating so. I want to respect people’s autonomy and privacy in this as well.

Dear University of Illinois,

In 6 years, much can be accomplished. Lincoln Hall and the ARC have been renovated, the SDRP has been built, the basketball team has finally beat Indiana, and many of us have walked across stage with a bachelor’s degree. Apparently, though, 6 years has not been enough time to remedy the school’s history of exclusion and cultural appropriation.

Having graduated from the University of Illinois, we are shocked to hear The News-Gazette report that students get to the vote to uphold racism on March 5-6, 2013. Are we really allowing this in the year 2013? This so-called “democratic” system the Student Senate and University uses is incredibly flawed if we point out this whole argument is about protecting underrepresented students, underrepresented meaning “not an adequate amount,” according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary. The annual School Report shows there are currently only 25 undergraduate students, 14 graduate students, and 2 staff members identifying as Native American on campus. Do we really think this is a fair vote? The results of this ballot will only give Chief supporters a tangible way to prove how massive and in the majority they really are. Allowing students to vote “yes” or “no” on an issue as complex as the Chief does not simply allow each student to have his or her own opinion but rather gives majority students the choice to have power over underrepresented students. Or, should we say, continues to allow students to have power over underrepresented students.

The Student Senate and this campus’s administration usually do not take a side when it comes to the Chief; it is out of privilege that neither is forced to take a side. Many students who fight against the Chief do so for survival. We do it because we hope to make the university a more inclusive space for those who come after us. Silence or neutrality chooses the side of the oppressor. More than the expected jeers and sneers from the pro-Chief fans, we will remember your silence. This silence is something commonplace in many atrocious events in this nation’s history. In a space where Chief-fanaticism exists, the silence of the administration not only allows for the growth of this fanaticism, but legitimizes it. The university has had 6 years to educate students on this issues instead of hoping it would die out. Instead, their silence has left students to fight for themselves and amongst themselves.

Less than 100 years ago–in 1916–the Ku Klux Klan was an honorary student organization at the University of Illinois. Since then, the university has continually been a site of racist incidents. To ignore our school’s racist history is not to understand fully the Chief debate. Although we have since then “welcomed” students of color to attend our university, recruitment and retention of students of color is still less than ideal.

Stephanie Fryburg and her colleagues at the University of Arizona, Stanford University, and the University of Michigan have done multiple psychological studies on the effects of mainstream characterizations of Native imagery on Native students’ self-efficacy and academic well-being. In an article published in the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology, Fryburg and her colleagues found that exposure to Native imagery, including images like Chief Illiniwek and Disney’s Pocahontas, had a pronounced negative impact on Native students’ well-being, while the same imagery actually boosted White students’ self-efficacy. Not only does imagery like Chief Illiniwek not properly “honor” Native peoples, it is actively discriminatory in this way when propagated on a college campus. We have seen countless incidents of cultural misappropriation protected as humor or tradition. From the infamous “Tacos and Tequilas” party to commonplace games of “cowboys and Indians,” it becomes evident that not enough has changed. Perhaps we can argue that modern day racism is all in good “humor,” but only one year ago Prof. Dharmapala was stabbed 6-inches into the throat as a result of racist ideology on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor. Such shocking incidents make us reasonably question the neutrality of such “humor.”

Other times, racism is upheld not as “humor” but as “tradition”. Is it of any surprise that 2nd and 3rd generation Chief supporters feel entitled to this mascot, along with other societal advantages? It shouldn’t be, since it is conceivable that these student’s ancestors contributed to pushing Native Americans onto reservations and stripping them of their rights, land, and dignity to begin with. Even those Chief supporters who do not have such connections benefit from a tradition of excavating, destroying, and abusing Native land and culture; nor have they faced the very real and potent difficulties that shape the lives of Native peoples living in this country today. Now our generation fights over the symbol that still remains a reminder of “tradition” to some and of death to others.

Let’s start calling it as it is. The real, choice students will be making on March 5-6th is not simply choosing the Chief or a new mascot. It is choosing whether or not to go backwards and reinstall a racist mascot or choosing to move forward toward new traditions. We can find a mascot that can represent all of us. We can find other things to fight for.

The Undersigned Embarrassed Alumni

Thaddeus Andracki
Suey Park
Katie O’Brien
Maja Seitz
Andrea Herrera Orrala
Kate Higgs
Kaytlin Reedy-Rogier, class of 2010
Melorie Masacupan
Patsy Diaz
HoChie Tsai
Stephanie Anne Ladrera Camba
Erin Andriamahefa
Kimberly Oco
Maria Koularmanis
Shikhank Sharma
Gabriel Machabanski
Nicholas Wood
Meghan Bohardt
Xavier Diaz
Kathlyn Oco
Ariann Sahagún
Jessica Nicholas
John-Ben Soileau
Benjamin Barnes
Erica Manzo
Xanat Sobrevilla
Emma Murdoch
Rae-Anne Montague
Matthew Knight
Pryscilla Bolander
Marina Sivilay
Shola Rufay
Tiffany D. Johnson
Sarah Rowe
Margaret Olson
Gwendolyn Wydra
Sarah Park Dahlen
Marcela Reyes
Peter Odell Campbell
Liz Watts
Jessica Harrison
Samantha Chavez
Samantha Sednek
Richard W. Chang, Esq.
Glynn Davis
Philip Slater
Matthew Francis Rarey
Erin L. Castro
Dawn Scanlon
Bryanna Mantilla
Jessica Kursman
Samuel Jesse
Jerry Diaz
Robyn Bianconi
Thomas O’Malley
Hilary Morris
Esther Ikoro
Patrick Brown, Champaign native, UIUC alum
America Campos
Liz Elsen
Ashley Rayner
Dan Wright
Masood Muhammad Haque
Jean Lee
Alexandra Bellis
Christine Dasko
Eric Schacht
Sunah Suh
Ryne Dionisio
Kristin Drogos
Aaron Parker
Tina-Marie Smith
Lucas McKeever
Steven Rosado
Sam Sednek
Zane Ranney
Christie Barchenger
Bert Berla
Andrew Y. Kim
Lorrie Pearson
Hector Mandel
Brian Bell
Rudy Leon
Benjamin Stone
Bryan Anderson
Chloe Edgar
Jessica E. Moyer
Deborah E. Dorsey
Ingbert Schmidt
Mathew J. Carroll-Schmidt
Mary E. McCormack
Alex Orozco
Debbie Reese
Elizabeth Berfield
Kent Carrico
Dana Robinson, Ph.D.
Mark R. Linder
Regina Serpa
Emily Henkels
Konrad Taube
Leah Zinthefer King
Sivling Heng
Roy Saldaña, Jr.
Lee Roberts
Thomas Webb
Jessica Dickson
Lily Huang
Viraj Patel
Justine Chan
Emily Wilson
T.J. Tallie
A.J. Kim
Berenice Ruhl
Jennifer M. Snapp
Kathleen Bowman North
Rafter Sass Ferguson
Raúl A. Mora, Ph.D.
Ryan Kuramitsu
Julian Ignacio
Thomas Joseph Ferrarell
Maren Williams
Victoria Murillo
Rosalie Morales Kearns, MFA
Stephanie Chang
Valerie Enriquez
Lukasz Wojtaszek
Amber Buck
Mike Suguitan
Brian Kung
Janaki Patel
Homari Oda
Suraiya Rashid
Christine Asidao
Archaa Shrivastav
Kathryn Conley Wehrmann
Dustin Lovett
Cynthia Wang
Kati Hinshaw
Isabel Diaz
Pei-Lynn Juang
Phillip N. Lambert
Jane Emmons
Damian Satterthwaite-Phillips
Amanda Beer, PhD
Ruxandra Costescu, PhD
Scott Kimball
Amanda Karkula
Lynsee Melchi
Victoria Mwansa Seward
Frank Hassler
Julia Dossett Morgan
Lauren M. Graham
Robert Mejia
Catherine Knight Steele
James D. Bunch
Gretchen Madsen, MLIS
B.A. Davis-Howe
Eric Mills
Rose Stremlau
Ian Binnington, Ph.D.
Carlos Daniel Rosa, Student Senator Emeritus
Amy Strohmeier Gort, Ph.D.
K’La Albertini
Eva Au
Guillermo Delgado
Cassie Connor
Michelle Birkett, Ph.D.
Adrian Bettridge-Wiese
Anusha Narayanan
Julie Boone
John Miller
Jeffrey DiScala
Emily Litchfield
Tyler Guenette
Sidoni Gonzalez
BWS Johnson

edited 2/25/13 22:59 to add signatures
edited 2/25/13 22:35 with more signatures and signature caveat in preamble
edited 2/26/13 11:07 with more signatures
edited 2/26/13 12:00 with more signatures, changed “Illini” in 2nd to last p. to “Chief supporters”
edited 2/26/13 13:45 with more signatures
edited 2/26/13 16:15, more signatures
edited 2/26/13 19:53, more signatures
edited 2/27/13 6:53, more signatures
edited 2/27/13 14:24, more signatures
edited 2/27/13, 20:10, a few more
edited 2/28/13, 20:52, one more
edited 3/3/13, 12:03, one more signature
edited 3/12/13, 18:09, another signature added

158 responses to “When Racism is a University Tradition: An Open Letter to the UIUC Community

  1. Reblogged this on The Magic Mulatto and commented:
    As a grad student in the University of Illinois system, I would be remiss not to reblog this open letter in resistance to racist mascoteering. Despite the progress we’ve made, let us not forget that old fashioned racism is alive and well in our most mainstream institutions. Thank you UIUC alumni!

  2. Have the 25 undergraduate students, 14 graduate students, and 2 staff members been asked their opinions on this issue? If you could add their view of all of this, it would not only provide more insight for everyone else, but it would give voice to those opinions are most important with regard to this issue.

    • Perhaps to clarify, we have not–and cannot–directly contacted each of those people listed. We are not privy to the names of people who identify in any way on the student report–nor should we be. We are, however, in contact with and continuing to work with the Native American House and the Indigenous Students Association on this matter.

      • I would be very interested to hear their response on the matter, as it would seem they would have the most reason to take offense. I hope we’ll see an update when that happens.

      • I am in fact one of the 8 graduate students listed as self-identifying as Native American. Looking at my name, you are probably wondering “what the hell?!” and – by a quick glance – I appear undeniably Caucasian. I personally self-identify as Metis (descended from French-Canadian and Native Americans) – go figure, no box for that on the application for that one so I check both Caucasian and Native American. My unique position – identifying as being on the border – has afforded me some unique perspectives on the representation of Native Americans. My high school’s mascot was the Chiefs until the year prior to my freshman year. Every year used to start with a ceremony hosted by the leaders of the First Nations explaining the history of cooperation as well as the hardships that lead to it. When the Chief mascot was dropped, so were they. Honestly, I felt as though something was lost – there was a fair transaction of culture with a promise to represent it honorably. That said, I saw nothing similar in the U of I Chief tradition – no transaction, just appropriation. Honestly, I have never really spoken out about my views on the Chief because a) he was ousted before my time, and b) the financial penalty by way of sanctions guarantees he will not return (regardless of the result of the vote) – a vote, if anything, will force the University to make the stand it should.

        I do believe students voting in favor of the Chief do so out of a sense of tradition and, importantly, NOT racism. That said, I do believe that it is a one-sided decision; one clearly made without properly weighing the other side. The Chief being an abstract concept helps people isolate themselves from considering the other side of the debate. The Chief is a caricature – more a symbol of U of I’s questionable past than he would ever be a symbol of a proud and strong culture. Furthermore, when attempted, it is difficult to interpret the opinions of the other side of the equation as they are remarkably multi-faceted. I myself am descended from Cree, Algonquin, and Odawa. Opinions on issues of representation vary within the communities: most taking offense; most also not wanting to be forgotten. Ultimately, the U of I Chief does represent, as stated, an appropriation of culture. The important thing to understand about the other side is that it is NOT a desire to be left alone, but one to have control of their own legacy.

        What many students supporting the Chief feel robbed of is a legacy shared by the parents and former alumni; what the Native American’s opposing the Chief feel robbed of is their cultural heritage – in short their legacy. Ultimately, both sides are fighting for similar reasons – and neither side will readily believe their claim to be less valid. We are, both sides, the disenfranchised children of our own legacies.

        What is important to note, is that for the Native Americans – this is it. The caricatures which portray this culture represent a threat to the only identity they possess. While those fighting for the Chief do so as Students or Alumni, they are always something else: Caucasian, perhaps African American, European, Asian, etc. In their lives, they are more likely to identify as one of those than as a Chief Supporter. Native Americans have no second identity, they are defending the only legacy they have. So while the motivations are similar, the fight is plainly disproportionate not only in strength of numbers but also in what each seeks to defend and preserve. I believe many students must understand the transaction they are trying to enact. In all aspects, they argue the same lines for legacy and to enact a fair trade must ask what they would expect as compensation if their positions were reversed. I expect many would not be able to put a price on the only identity, the only legacy, they have – especially when many fight so fervently for a second legacy of which they feel deprived.

        I should restate that I personally do not identify as Native American, nor Caucasian; I identify as Metis. Specifically, I identify as the merging of the two. In that concept is implicitly embedded two cultures but – more importantly – the decision for each to love and respect the other fully.

      • Mr. Kroeker,
        As brief as it was, you made one of the best arguments I have ever read about cultural appropriation. You managed to damn the process without vilifying any of the participants. Thank you for your clarity and your compassion.

  3. 19 years after I graduated and this racist symbol still exists? We were fighting against this in the early 90’s and I am happy to see that future generations have continued to fight against this “mascot.” It disgusts me as an alumni that this issues has resurfaced again in light of the 2005 NCAA rules regarding use of Native American mascots. Has anyone in the Senate thought about the LEGAL ramifications of this vote? Is UIUC prepared to be sanctioned by the NCAA? I’m not even sure why students even have a choice. Someone better consult a lawyer about this vote before UIUC suddenly finds themselves shut out of all NCAA sports and ad revenue. 20 years ago, we as students recognized that hitting UIUC where it hurts the most, namely sports revenue, alumni donations, endowments, and endorsements, works the best in changing their attitude. Please send a copy of this letter to ESPN and NCAA as well. That will hit UIUC where it truly hurts and cause them to rethink their strategy of trying to revive this shameful mascot.

    Please feel free to add my name to this letter.

    • Just to clarify, the Student Senate, and the administration for that matter, have absolutely nothing to do with this vote. It has been 100% student driven, so if you want to blame anyone, blame the student body at large.

      Just like any other question, a student or student group can gather a certain number of signatures (2-3 thousand I think) and get it on the ballot. The move to get this on the ballot was prompted by the horribly-botched “vote” to gather support for new mascot ideas. It was one sided in that students were not given a “No” or “status quo” option to choose if they did not want to move forward with a new mascot. Many students, both Chief supporters and not, were rightfully upset. I can’t speak to everyone’s motivations, but the goal of this Chief question is simply to allow students to voice there opinion, and prevent the administration from moving forward based off the unfair poll regarding new mascots.

      While I understand frustrations, I’m not sure why the reaction to this vote should be any different from the one in 2008, where students voted overwhelmingly in favor of the Chief. The Board of Trustees did nothing then and will do nothing now.

  4. When I was on campus, I wrote multiple letters to the DI in opposition to the Chief, and still wish I had done more to help the crusade of the most powerful Native voice on campus, a student who has since left the university. Please add my name as well: Matthew Francis Rarey.

  5. I feel the duty to support this. When I was young, I thought the Chief was cool, not considering the cultural appropriation it represented. I am ashamed of our disrespect to the Native American peoples and I want to correct this.

    Please add my name to the list!
    Samuel Jesse

  6. Please add my name. Eric Schacht – College of Law ’06

    I grew up in this town and used to cheer for the Chief. I enrolled at the U of I first as an undergrad in the 80’s and befriended a Native American student. I also have had family members marry Native Americans and work in Native communities. My eyes opened slowly but surely to the racism and cruelty that I was unknowingly supporting through my ignorance and disregard. I have come full circle with regret and wish that others would be brave enough to simply reconsider this issue from a perspective outside of their own selves, own race and own class.

  7. Great letter. I’d like to recommend that, in this passage: “Is it of any surprise that 2nd and 3rd generation Illini feel entitled to this mascot, along with other societal advantages? It shouldn’t be, since it is conceivable that these student’s ancestors contributed to pushing Native Americans onto reservations and stripping them of their rights, land, and dignity to begin with.” the words “2nd and 3rd generation Illini” be changed to “2nd and 3rd generation `Chief’ fans”? Or something similar?

    • Unless I misunderstood the passage — I think you’re saying that the fans believe they are entitled to appropriate the the notions of the so-called Chief, in which case, I think the fans should not be called “Illini” because they are also appropriating that tribal name, which is an additional, pervasive issue here. Thanks,

      • The term “Fighting Illini” has nothing to do with a tribal name, but rather serves as a tribute from those Illinois students who fought in World War I.

  8. I knew when fought for the removal of this upsetting piece of my beloved university as a sophomore, it would not be the last I hear of it. But I never imagined there would be an option for its reinstatement. I cannot believe I am still fighting for this as an alumnus. It really gives me pause to send my younger siblings and future children to my alma mater, something that should make me infinitely proud.

    Please add my name: Lily Huang

  9. Add me as well. I have had too many debates over this, needs to stop. I am actually a current undergrad. (2014)

  10. Please add my name – Krista Lynn Fleming (now K’La Albertini), class of 1991
    Not knowing any better at the time, I loved Chief while I was there, but I cannot stand by and allow the use of that imagery to harm others. Best of luck.

  11. Maybe you should ask the 24 students what they think before assuming everyone shares your extremely skewed opinion.

    • I refuse to draw out a debate in a semianonymous forum, but as has previously been pointed out, I am currently working alongside NAISO, the Native American/Indigenous Student Organization on anti-Chief efforts. Perhaps not all of the 24 students are anti-Chief–which, as I have pointed out, I cannot find out, as I do not have access to the names of people who identify in any way on one of these surveys–but a large number of indigenous students on this campus are actively involved in anti-Chief organizing. Please do not assume that I have not done my research.

  12. If anything, you’re racist for assuming those Native American faculty and students all identify with one tribe. Native Americans are not a collective group but have vastly different cultures and histories.

  13. I didn’t realize people were still upset by this kind of thing. Disney’s Brave and The Fighting Irish never once “pronounced negative impact on [my] well-being” or the well-being of any of my Celtic friends… never even considered it might. I’m a proud FSU Seminole because the Seminole tribe of Florida is more than happy to represent the school. Sure anyone from the tribe gets free tuition at the school, but the real reason they agree to associate with the university is because FSU respects the tribe’s culture and history. The image of Chief Osceola itself is neither inherently racist or non-racist. It’s how the image is respected, and the same should be said for Chief Illiniwek.

  14. Powerful letter – thank you for stating so well what many started saying years ago- how disheartening that so little has changed on campus and in our community.

  15. I can either associate Native Americans with my childhood trips up north where I literally watched them throw empty beer cans into lakes in the boundary waters, or I can associate them with the dignity and solemn honor anybody who adores Chief Illiniwek sees him as. Future generations will vastly only stick to casino stereotypes, and if you want racist – there it is. This all just seems like backwards liberal logic where the solution exacerbates the problem. Data and studies can be (and often are) skewed to tell whatever story that matches the hidden agenda. I know a number of Native Americans, and none of them had a clue why Chief Illiniwek was forcibly removed – most were disappointed as it reminded them of their heritage and it was taken away. It certainly is a much better reminder than what society puts out nowadays, provided it hasn’t been outright forgotten.

    I will certainly follow my dad’s mantra when I eventually get out of U of I. No Chief, No Check.

  16. Pingback: Open Letter to University of Illinois Administration | Open Letter to University of Illinois Administration

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